Place, climate and houses

I’m sitting in my study on an overcast winter day.  The Iron Paw remains in the bedroom, where the heater is still giving off some residual heat.  The newly acquired heater for the study is taking its time to do its thing.  Above me I can hear the insulation installer. 

 This is not a post about the recent scandal, although my heart does go out to the families of the young men who died.  It is a post about place, and climate, and houses.  I’ve lived in 21 different houses in four states, going from the tropics to the spine stiffening cold.  (I may write a post on my capacity to move house a lot another time).  I’ve lived in some very swish houses and also some that should probably have been put to the bulldozer.  The one thing I can safely say about them all was how appallingly there were all designed from the perspective of climate management.

 In terms of block dimensions and orientation, the house I grew up in had fabulous potential for a house that was passive solar.  In other words, designed so that sun could warm it in winter and be excluded from it in summer, and thus limiting the amount of artificial heating and cooling that needed to be applied.  Its length ran east west, meaning that it had fantastic northern light.  So what did my parents do?  They built the garage there.  When I left home I moved into a nineteenth century timber cottage in South Fremantle for a while, which I loved aesthetically and hated practically.  We cooked in summer and froze in winter.  Its main climatic advantage was being two streets from the beach.

 In the tropics the trick is not so much catching the sun as avoiding it.  The keys to surviving in non drippy comfort are shade and ventilation.  The Cairns unit?  Well, the less said about that the better.  Nor would I elaborate on my true feelings for the land lord who instructed me to scrub the plumbing under the sink with a toothbrush dipped in bleach.

 In Canberra, where minus three mornings are not uncommon in winter and we have as many heatwaves as the other capitals, a climate intelligent house is really important.  Otherwise you spend half the year being miserable.  Alas, such houses are incredibly rare.  My current house is in a great location, but god would I love to knock it down and start again.  Like most houses of its 1960s era, it is woeful with the garage on the north, among other faults. 

 Yet house prices are so outrageous here that I’d have to sell most of my internal organs and then some to finance it.  For example, a work colleague bought an eight star house recently, at over a million dollars.  I have a friend here who is going through the torturous process of trying to build a house with an eight star rating.  For what looks to me like a fairly simple and by no means large by current standards house, the quotes they are receiving require a stiff triple gin to take in the implications.  The most I can afford right now is roof insulation. 

 I’m old fashioned enough to think that good design is an investment that pays for itself over the long term.  I’m not talking about the styling either, which is what many people think of when they hear the word design.  Well crafted, thermally comfortable and functional spaces improve the quality of daily life.  I can’t stress the adjective ‘daily’ enough.  Our homes, streets, offices, shopping centres.  That’s where we all go, every single day.  We’re stuck with the housing stock we have now, the legacy of poor decisions, lack of understanding and general penny pinching.  Let’s not keep going down the same path.


Resistance observed

In my last post I noted my fundamental resistance towards this blog, and wondered aloud about what insights might come now that I have turned my attention to it.  The answer came that night, although I am not going to tell you what that was yet.  Instead I am going to tell you about my Saturday morning.

In my inbox I had been receiving invites to Café e Chiacchiere (Coffee and Chat), organised by a small group of people interested in Italian life and culture.  It was set for 10.30 at a café I’d never heard of in a part of my town I rarely need to visit, except to take my cat to the holistic vet that is down there.  I’d joined this group in January and as yet had not gotten to any events for reasons of clashes with other pre-existing engagements.  So, having just come back from my first trip to Italy, I thought this was the perfect moment.  I’d tried to RSVP earlier but with my usual technological aplomb, it didn’t work.  What the hell?, I thought.  I’ll go anyway.  I found the right street, and just as I was going to pull into the carpark I wrenched the steering wheel back and kept on driving.


Hello resistance.  There you are again.  Popular new age or self help literature likes to put forward the notion that we each have a guide who accompanies us.  This may be true.  I’d like to think that it is.  But what’s more likely is that we are trailed around, stalked even, by far less helpful beings.  More than that, powerful beings capable of making mostly sane people do really quite ridiculous things. 

To resist is to push away from an opposing force.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing.  For example, it can build muscles and lengthen them as you stretch.  I’m currently resisting the imprecations of the Iron Paw to take the place of my laptop.  But it’s not always so innocent.   And, when it could actually be useful, it disappears.  Where is it when you’re about to pour your nth glass of vino or light up or eat the entire tub of icecream? 

It’s at its least helpful when it gets in the way of attempts to expand your life.  This can mean many things to many people, but for me this morning, expanding my life meant expanding my social life.  So what went wrong?  I was about to pull into the carpark.  I saw the tables and chairs outside, and the clear plastic awnings stretching to the pavement.  I saw a long benchful of people, all sitting facing the carpark.  It was roughly the right number for the group, and I saw instantly that there was no more room. With no actual evidence to justify my assumption, I (or my resistance) decided that this was the group and that they would be irritated with me, someone who was late and who hadn’t RSVP’ed.  If I’d been able to resist my resistance and think clearly, I’d have said to myself ‘That might not be them, and you’re only a few minutes late and besides some of them might be late too’.  Instead I kept driving, compounding my resistance with a new reason ‘oh everyone saw your erratic driving and you can’t go back now’.

Resistance is the flag bearer for your fears, but in a strange perverted kind of way, resistance is trying to protect you.  It’s a little like a helicopter parent, always hovering around, ready to swoop in and protect you.  Well intentioned, over bearing and largely unhelpful.  And here’s where the answer I alluded to earlier comes in.  It’s a lengthy quote from the wonderful author and poet David Whyte, but stick with it. 

The stakes in good work are necessarily high.  Our competence might be at stake in ordinary, unthinking work but in good work that is a heartfelt expression of ourselves, we necessarily put our very identities at hazard….Failure in truly creative work is not some mechanical breakdown but the prospect of a failure in our very essence, a kind of living death.  Little wonder we often choose the less vulnerable, more familiar approach, that places work mostly in terms of provision.  If I can reduce my image of work to just a job I have to do, then I keep myself safely away from the losses to be endured in putting my heart’s desires at stake.[1]

If I don’t write this blog, I can’t be open to criticism or hostility. I can’t be found wanting, by anyone except myself that is.  What is worse?   

Like I said, resistance is like a helicopter parent.  Taking over and steering you away from something deemed unsafe or risky.  But this whole blog is about the promotion of creativity, and that requires taking risks and making mistakes.  Some of which, I am wryly forced to acknowledge, could even be fun!  If I don’t keep at writing this blog I’ll have achieved nothing, except disappoint myself.  I might disappoint others, but that is probably the lesser risk.

[1][1] David Whyte, Crossing the unknown sea: Work as a pilgrimage of identity, Riverhead Books, New York, 2002, p13.